Space (Perspective)

Artists use many tricks to create the illusion of solid objects existing in a three dimensional space:

  • Linear Perspective
  • Aerial or atmospheric perspective
  • Foreshortening
  • Layering

But they had to work out how to do it first:

They could see that scale changes with distance; objects get smaller the farther away they are:

Master of Halberstadt, St. Paul, 1185

And obviously, if something is behind something else, it’s farther away, so they used overlapping to show depth:

Illuminated Manuscript, Mary Magdalen Announcing the Resurrection

And they could see that more distant objects are higher up on the picture plane, so they used vertical perspective to create distance:

Sts. Cyril and Methodios from The Meonologion of Basil II
Cimabue, Santa Trinita Madonna, 1285-86

Around 1300 Giotto started to get it:

Giotto, Ognissanti Madonna, 1306-1310
Giotto and Pupils, St. Francis Driving Out the Demons of Arezzo, 1305

These works all use intuitive perspective.  The artists “eyeballed it,” overlapping objects and using vertical perspective to create the illusion of space.

Not bad, but a more scientific approach was needed.  Around 1400 CE they figured it out.  Can you imagine how excited they were?  It must have been like magic.  In fact, the story goes that one painter, Paolo Uccello, when called to bed by his wife, refused and replied,  “What a sweet mistress this perspective is!”

Linear Perspective

One Point Linear Perspective:

The orthogonal lines converge at the vanishing point on the horizon line:

Masaccio, Tribute Money, 1427

Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, 1495-98
Caspar David Friedrich, The Stages of Life, 1835
Camille Pissarro, Place du Theatre Francais, Rain, 1898
Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation with Saint Emidius, 1486
James Tissot, Portsmouth Dockyard, 1877

Two Point Linear Perspective:

The orthogonal lines “fall back” from a perpendicular line to two vanishing points on the horizon line:

Gustave Caillebotte, Rue de Paris, Wet Weather, 1877

See the difference?

Atmospheric or Aerial Perspective:

Distant objects are less distinct, bluer or “cooler.”

Albert Bierstadt, Yosemite Valley, 1863
Leonardo da Vinci, Virgin with St. Anne, 1510


When an artist portrays an object receding or sharply projecting from the picture plane.

Andrea Mantegna, The Dead Christ, 1490-1501
Frans Hals, Young Man with Skull, 1626-28
Correggio, Assumption of the Virgin, 1526-30


Another trick artists use is layering the picture into different zones:

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow, 1565

Sometimes I think this is my favorite picture in the world.